ZINJIBAR, Yemen — For more than a year, Abyan province has been the epicenter of an intensifying covert war against Ansar al-Shari’a, a new al-Qaida incarnate spreading along the remote shores of the Gulf of Aden in southern Yemen. Hellfire missiles fired from Predator and Reaper drones have killed hundreds of Ansar soldiers since last June when the CIA began flying its fleet of drones from a secret base somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula.
Since Ansar established its first so-called Islamic Emirate in Abyan last spring during the tumult of Yemen’s revolution, the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have carried out some three dozen air strikes, a fivefold increase by U.S. forces over the nine preceding years combined.
Some say the ramped-up Yemeni drone campaign, whose existence the White House will neither confirm nor deny, paved the way for the two-month-long Yemeni troop surge, dubbed operation Golden Swords, that only two weeks ago shattered the Islamic Caliphate and liberated Abyan from al-Qaeda’s grip.
Others insist the barrage of remote-guided missiles needlessly killed scores of civilians and inflamed the smoldering al-Qaeda threat: Ansar has taken to Afghanistan-style suicide bombings across Yemen as a means to settle the score, killing some 100 soldiers at a parade rehearsal in May, assassinating the top Yemeni military commander in the war against al-Qaeda in June and killing a top Yemeni intel chief in July.
Amidst this tumult, Yemen’s interim President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi is quietly steering the divided country toward multiparty elections in 2014, as part of a US-backed Gulf country power transfer deal that kicked longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office and arguably jerked the Arab world’s poorest country from the precipice of civil war. The success or failure of the Gulf plan could have major ramifications for the wider region, where Somalian pirates swarm the Gulf of Aden, through which swollen oil tankers from the world’s number one supplier pass daily.
In an exclusive reporting trip to the war-ravaged hamlet of Zinjibar, Abyan’s provincial capital, Danger Room caught a first glimpse of Washington’s latest shadow war.
All photos by Casey L. Coombs
Drugs and Decapitation
“Yeah, a lot of humanitarian workers have come here since al-Qaida left, but all they’ve done is take pictures,” a local qat dealer told Danger Room. Ansar al-Shari’a restricted the use of qat, an amphetamine-laced leaf chewed by millions of Yemenis, in cities like Zinjibar. Some residents chewed the substance in complete isolation after witnessing their militant leaders publicly behead alleged spies and thieves.